Capstone Feature: Toward a Low-Carbon and Climate Resilient Agriculture Sector - Policies to Increase the Adoption of Cover Crops in British Columbia

British Columbia’s (BC) agricultural sector is severely threatened by climate change. Despite some progress made towards reducing the sector’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increasing its resilience, significant efforts remain. One effective mitigation and adaptation pathway is through increasing the adoption of cover crops. Cover crops can reduce GHG emissions and provide environmental and economic co-benefits. Cover crops can sequester up to 0.51 tons of carbon per hectare per year (t C ha-1yr-1) in BC, and the average abatement cost of increasing adoption is $51 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). 

However, farmers in BC currently underutilize cover crops since many ecological services do not get priced in market economies and farmers face barriers to adoption. With a focus on annual field cropping systems, this study seeks to address the following research questions: (1) How and why are cover crops used? (2) What are the adoption rates of cover crops across agricultural regions? (3) What factors affect cover crop adoption? (4) What efforts have been and can be used in North America to address the underutilization of cover crops and reduce barriers to adoption? (5) How receptive are farmers to potential new program and policy options? The methodologies used in this study include a literature review; a scan of policies, programs, and research and development initiatives across North America; an online survey; and interviews with farmers, government representatives, agricultural consultants, an academic expert, and not-for-profit representatives. 

Two policy options are recommended to address the market failure and barriers to adoption: expansion of BC’s Farm Adaptation Innovator Program (FAIP) and BC’s Beneficial Management Practices (BMP) program. The key criteria used to assess these policies include effectiveness in increasing the adoption of cover crops and effectiveness in reducing barriers to adoption. Other evaluation criteria included equity, administrate ease, cost to provincial government, and farmer acceptance. These recommendations are accompanied by brief implementation considerations.

We interviewed Claire Davies, MPP 2022 who received the School’s CAPPA Award for outstanding Capstone research.  

Your Capstone dedication is to the farmers of today and tomorrow. What led to your interest in agricultural policy issues and practices before starting the MPP program? 

I am drawn to agriculture and food policy because it transcends many sectors, such as health, transportation, education, and the environment. Food is also relatable and is depended upon by all humans, regardless of their political, cultural, historical, or economic position. 

Prior to starting the MPP Program, I had undertaken research pertaining to agriculture and agri-food systems and environmental policy at the undergraduate level. I also gained practical experience by working as an organic farmer in Ontario. Furthermore, I sought to identify and address gaps within our global food system in volunteer capacities. Examples include serving and growing food for soup kitchens, my roles as a youth climate ambassador and food systems manager for not-for-profits, facilitating agricultural workshops in Uganda, and my involvement in La Via Campesina in Cuba.

What are you most proud of when you look back on the work that went into your Capstone? And what was a challenge you dealt with along the way? 

I was committed to conducting research that is policy relevant and would be of use to farming organizations and the provincial government. I am confident that my capstone provides a clear overview of the cover crop landscape in BC, and provides realistic next steps for achieving BC’s climate targets through the use of cover crops. I am proud of the relevance and applicability of my research findings to British Columbia’s and Canada’s current agricultural policy framework and system. The Government of Canada’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan was released the day before my capstone defense. I was pleased to see that the Plan included federal investments for programs that are very similar the policy recommendations I put forward for the BC provincial government. 

One challenge I dealt with was a lack of online survey responses from farmers. I overcame this challenge by conducting semi-structured interviews. Conducting interviews provided me with the opportunity to gain insight into the trade-offs between policy options and to understand a diversity of perspectives (beyond farmers’ perspectives) on government’s role in overcoming barriers and increasing the adoption of cover cropping. Interviewees included government representatives, agricultural consultants, farmers, an academic expert, and not-for-profit representatives.

Who should be reading your research report and how are you sharing the details of your Capstone findings and recommendations? What kinds of reactions have you received so far? 

Provincial and federal agricultural policymakers should read my report. Although this research focuses on BC, many of the barriers to adopting cover crops are felt by farmers across the country. Given relatively low adoption rates across the country, this research can also help identify which policy levers and tools might help encourage wider adoption of this Nature-based Solution (NbS) in other jurisdictions. 

The positive externalities (e.g., greenhouse gas benefits, environmental co-benefits) gained by planting cover crops are not unique to this NbS. Thus, this research may also be helpful for government representatives working on addressing market failures pertaining to other environmental resources. 

Once my capstone is published, I will share it with my network of academics, provincial and federal government representatives, farmers, and non-governmental organization representatives.

Read Claire's Capstone here.